Federal officials have opened up an investigation into whether or not Cliven Bundy supporters damaged a protected archaeological site when they rode all-terrain vehicles through it during a weekend protest.
On Saturday, hundreds of protesters gathered near southern Utah’s Recapture Canyon, voicing their opposition to the fact that the area has been closed to recreational vehicles by the Bureau of Land Management since 2007. After the rally, dozens of people descended upon the canyon in ATVs, driving the vehicles through restricted areas.
As RT reported previously, the BLM had barred motorized vehicles from Recapture Canyon after it discovered an illegal trail that was built through Native American archaeological sites – home to artifacts, dwellings and other objects left behind by the ancient Pueblo tribe that were as old as 2,000 years.
According to Reuters, local sheriff’s deputies and undercover BLM agents kept an eye on the protest as it unfolded, gathering information for a probe that could lead to charges if damages are confirmed.
"At the end of the BLM's investigation, all evidence will be referred to the US Attorney's Office for potential civil or criminal action," agency spokeswoman Megan Crandall told the news outlet.
As noted by the Associated Press, between 40 and 50 ATV riders went out onto the trail, many sporting American flags and possessing weapons as they rode through the canyon. No arrests were made and no violence was reported, but one Colorado-based environmental group said the government should press charges.
"It's not appropriate to break the law, do an illegal ride and go into the canyons with weapons," Shelley Silbert of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness group said to the AP. "That's very different than a non-violent, civil disobedience protest."
For protesters, however, sealing off the park to motorized vehicles was yet another example of government “overreach” regarding public land. The man behind the protest – San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman – criticized the BLM not only for closing off Recapture Canyon, but also for not processing “right of way” requests that would’ve allowed vehicles to re-enter the area.
"This was never an ATV agenda," Lyman told Reuters. "It had to do with the BLM not following its own process and ignoring the people most effected by its decisions."
"We’re not proponents of breaking the law," he said on Saturday. "This was a supervisor’s discretionary closure. It’s a county road. We claim it. Just because BLM owns the property, that doesn’t mean they own the right-of-way that exists."
Although Lyman – who said he orchestrated the protest as private citizen – expressed concern over the possibility that charges may be levied, it remains unclear if such a development will occur. He added that when he visited the site of the protest again on Sunday there was no damage noticeable.
Speaking on Monday, Jerry Spangler of the Colorado Plateau Archaeological Alliance cautioned what it would mean for Recapture Canyon to be spoiled by the protests.
"Damage to archaeological sites is permanent and the information about our collective past is then lost forever," he said. "It is sad that irreplaceable treasures of importance to all Americans would be sacrificed on the altar of anti-government fervor. It is worse that protesters would be so blinded to their own insensitivity as to what others consider to be sacred treasures of their past."
Land rights disputes have made headlines in the US ever since an armed confrontation occurred between the BLM and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy in April. The BLM claimed Bundy owed taxpayers $1 million in unpaid grazing fees and attempted to seize his cattle before the rancher’s supporters – including armed militia members – came to his defense. Bundy said he does not owe the government anything, since he’s been working on land used by his ancestors.